(PARMA, Ohio) — The parking lot arrest in 2016 stunned Anthony Novak as much as the charge: alleged disruption of law enforcement operations for making a parody of his local police department’s page on Facebook.
“They said, ‘put your hands behind your back.’ They said, ‘fake Parma Facebook page,"” Novak recounted to ABC News of the moment Parma police officers took him into custody outside a neighborhood convenience store in 2016.
Novak, 33, went on to spend four days in jail. A local jury later acquitted him of any wrongdoing. Now, he’s trying to sue the police for alleged violation of his civil rights.
A federal appeals court earlier this year acknowledged “difficult questions” in the case, but said the officers were protected by qualified immunity and dismissed Novak’s claims.
Next month, the U.S. Supreme Court is set to decide whether to take up his appeal.
“I made something that was completely legal. I was allowed to make a parody page about the police,” Novak said. “And then, they raided my house, they took my electronics, they arrested me. My image was blasted all over the news, and I didn’t do anything wrong.”
“I don’t want them to think that’s okay, because I kind of think they do,” Novak added. “I don’t want it to happen to someone else.”
Novak claims it was all “obviously a joke” — protected by a right to free speech — and that he was jailed as payback. The spoof page included the slogan “We No Crime” and a series of satirical posts, including an announcement banning residents from feeding the homeless and an offer of free abortions from a police van.
The police department did not see humor. Police Lt. Kevin Riley told local reporters at the time that the posts were “crude, demeaning and inflammatory,” adding, “there’s a fine line between satire and endangering the public.”
The city said later in court documents that Novak’s social media spoof prompted 11 phone calls to the police department’s non-emergency number and necessitated a public warning on the city’s official Facebook page about a fake.
Shortly after the spoof went online, the department announced a criminal investigation into the creator of the page poking fun at their officers. Novak says he then deleted the account, which had been online for just 12 hours.
“Unless there are some consequences for police essentially taking offense to protected speech online and showing up at people’s houses and arresting them, all signs are that they will continue doing that,” said Patrick Jaicomo, senior attorney with Institute for Justice which is representing Novak.
The City of Parma declined ABC News’ request for an interview but said in a statement that its officers did nothing wrong and that Novak’s suit is “groundless.”
“The courts concluded that the police [acted] within the bounds of warrants issued by judges,” the city said through its attorney, adding Novak “went beyond mimicry” by reposting on his fake page an official warning from the city about the fake site.
“The legal theory here is just staggeringly broad and dangerous for all sorts of free speech,” Jaicomo said in response to the city’s claim.
Experts say the case could have a significant impact on parody — a form of humor defined by being true to life, wielding criticism by imitation. From TV skits to satirical headlines, parodies at least momentarily fool a viewer or reader into thinking they could be real.
“It’s the ability to tell a joke with a straight face,” said Mike Gillis, head writer at The Onion, the popular satirical web publication that mimics a newspaper and pokes fun at just about everyone and everything.
When Gillis heard about Novak’s case, he and The Onion filed their first ever brief with the U.S. Supreme Court late last year, citing a “self-serving interest in preventing political authorities from imprisoning humorists.” They urged the justices to defend the ability to deceive without a disclaimer.
“There are powerful individuals in this country who seem to think that they should be the sole arbiters of [legitimate parody]. And I think judges and police officers and figures of authority, the people who are most susceptible to parody, should be as far away from that lever as possible,” Gillis said. “I think we should leave it to the average American to make that choice.”
Novak says he is done poking fun at the police but not giving up on parody, hoping The Onion’s support of his case will help inspire the nation’s highest court to hear his appeal.
“I hope that it defines even more something I think is already defined: that you can make fun of the government. It is your First Amendment right to make parody, especially. And government shouldn’t come after you and attack you,” Novak said. “I want to weaken the idea that the government can just come and arrest you and have no accountability.”
The court will decide whether to take up the case at a private conference next month.
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